Nintendo 3DS Should Not Have Focused On 3D

I love my Nintendo 3DS. It’s probably the Nintendo handheld I’ve been most devoted to over the years, likely because it’s the system for which I managed to build up the biggest year-one library. So far there hasn’t been a single game purchase that I’ve regretted, and that’s something I haven’t been able to say for any other device in my entire gaming history.

But I do have one slight issue with the 3DS – and that’s the 3D effect. You see, I hardly ever use the darn thing. It’s not that I don’t think the 3D looks good. I actually think it’s pulled off rather well in most games. It’s just that I don’t particularly care about it, and since I’m so used to playing games without 3D, I’d much rather play them in a way that I’m already comfortable with.

Yet that expensive little 3D screen probably tacked a good number of dollars onto the system’s price (as well as the price of its games). How else do you suppose Nintendo thought they could get away with charging the same for a handheld that they do for their home consoles? Obviously that didn’t go too well – they had to slash prices and sell the system at a loss just to make sure they moved units.

I think the 3DS would have been much better off without the 3D effect – and you can hop inside to check out my reasons why.

The Cost Factor

Reports from around the time of the 3DS launch last year pegged its manufacturing costs at somewhere around 33% higher than the DSi. Increases in costs due to minor features like the 3D cameras, included memory card, better processors, and added Circle Pad were miniscule – it seems that the larger part of the cost hike was thanks to the brand-spanking new 3D screen.

Bearing in mind that the 3DS’s massive price cut was also about 33%, and that after the cut the system was selling at a loss, this means that had they not included the 3D screen, Nintendo could still have likely sold it for a profit. Of course, they also could have released the system at a $170 price point to begin with… which leads me to my next point.

No 3D Would Have Freed Up Processing Power for Other Things

I don’t really need to explain this one, do I? Having to display images twice in order to take advantage of the 3D display means that the system can only tap into so much of its graphical processing power; the rest has to be saved for the 3D effect. Sure, games can allocate power differently based on the 3D settings, but I think a lot of people would concur that if you’re going to pack a nice processor in your handheld, you should at least use it for the core visuals and not an optional function like 3D.

3DS was said to pack more power than Wii, and it’s a shame to see that so much of that power was pushed in a direction that didn’t prove to be the correct one in the end.

Nintendo Misread Reactions to 3D

3DS demoed very well at E3. Everyone from both the media and the industry seemed to love the heck out of the 3D effect, praising it to high heavens and excited to see where the system would take the concept. We saw all kinds of developer interviews elaborating on this excitement. It seemed as though everything was set for the system to have a booming launch. In the end, however, that excitement didn’t translate to consumer buying behavior. I think there are three main reasons why this is the case.

First of all, I think it has a lot to do with 3D having a ton of “shock value,” but little “sustained value.” By that I mean that the novelty of 3D, especially glasses-less 3D, seems really impressive at first, but ceases to be exciting or interesting after a relatively short time.

I remember looking at Ocarina of Time 3D at E3 2011 and thinking, “Wow, they did a really good job adding depth to such an old game!” If they could do such a good job with an old N64 game, I couldn’t wait to see what they’d be able to do with future games built from the ground up for the system. Inevitably, however, I found that the 3D wasn’t really offering much in terms of gameplay or fun – instead it was just a drain on my battery life, a detriment to anti-aliasing, and so on. It created more problems than it did value.

But Nintendo thought it offered a lot of value. That’s why they charged console-level dollars for it.

Second of all, I think that Nintendo saw people constantly shelling out cash for Wii and the DS line and believed that they’d have little trouble selling 3DS. This probably factored into the price issue, too. But what Nintendo failed to take into account is that the economy of 2011 was very different than the economy of 2006.

In 2006 we were running on an artificial high; in 2011, the stark realities of recession had long set in. This was not the environment for pitching a high-priced handheld. This was the kind of historical moment where it was more critical than ever for luxury hardware to be affordable.

Finally, I think Nintendo confused the industry reaction with the mass market reaction. Just because a bunch of people paid to go experience the latest in gaming adore something doesn’t mean the people who have to actually pay for the entertainment are going to think it’s a worthy investment.

This isn’t a Nintendo-specific problem as much as it is an industry problem in general. People think that E3 is the center of the gaming universe, and it simply isn’t. You have to gauge the reactions of your customers, the people who haven’t bitten the hook yet, not the people who already have something of a stake in your product – whether as developers/publishers, media people, or diehard Nintendo fans that will worship anything the company does.

Remember that Wii’s showing at E3, while it was actually pretty positively received, was marked to a much greater degree by skepticism in the face of the much more powerful PlayStation 3. That’s why almost everyone was surprised when Wii was so successful. This should serve as a sobering reminder that not everything that we hear out of the E3 media buzz actually winds up holding any water at the end of the day.

3D is Not a Content-Friendly Feature

I’ve waded through some of the market-related issues with the 3D effect, but here’s the core of the problem: 3D doesn’t actually offer anything in terms of improving the content of video games. It can’t by default if there’s an option for games to be played in 2D – the game has to be able to stand on its own without 3D.

Game content has little to do with how things are seen and everything to do with what there is to see – that means things like environments, characters, enemies, obstacles, and so on. Does 3D really enhance any of these things in any meaningful way? It might make environments pop out of the screen, but it doesn’t actually impact the artistry, the elements involved, or the core game design.

Bearing this in mind, and setting all the other issues about price and market impact aside, is the prevalence of 3D even justified in the first place? I’ll answer this question for you: no, it isn’t.

Customers aren’t stupid. They won’t buy something unless they really think it brings the best bang for their buck. And judging by the slow performance of 3DS last year, it wasn’t 3D that brought the masses – it was good, old-fashioned game content.

While I love the heck out of the Wii U GamePad, I suspect that it might inevitably garner a similar indifference from the wider public. It’s all going to depend on whether people see value in the ability to operate using a second screen – whether that means using a touch screen for menus, displaying content without having to use the TV, or incorporating the GamePad into the living room. Fortunately, we can at least say that the GamePad offers more than just a shock value gimmick, since it brings additional utility and a potentially superior interface.

But will the masses agree? We’ll find out when Wii U hits stores this fall.

  • http://twitter.com/ShintoWave steve

    people see value in the second screen

    ask the ds AND 3ds about that one.

  • Mystery Mystery

    Heh. Well, I’m going to disagree with you.
    3D is awesome. Way more awesome than some gameplay changes that Nintendo keeps touting. 3D is way more awesome than the Wii Controller. Way coolers than graphics improvements.
    Therefore, I am just going to disagree with everything you said. I’d rather they spend the graphics processing power on something else than just visuals. That’s just more of the same we’ve had all the time.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100001078623145 Ethan Letourneau

    i would whole heartedly agree with this article. the 3DS is a huge step forward in handhelds in terms of power. (yes one could go on to say that the PSP and the Vita are more powerful but they didn’t take off the way the DS did) I have similar feelings about the 3D. its a neat little gimmick at first, but i quickly learned that the games look much better with the 3D turned off. as the processes of making it 3D lowers frame rate and resolution by a litte, but it’s still enough to make it unsettling. I love the circle pad, the systems fits really well in my hand, all the games i have that i can only play on it i love, but the 3D adds nothing.

    • scondeez

      Are you joking? The games look much better with the 3D ON! I have no frame rate problems when playing in 3D, either… You must have bought some other rip-off of the 3DS…cause the 3D adds A LOT to the system!

      • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100001078623145 Ethan Letourneau

        If it was a ripoff then how do i have Ambassador Program games?
        Also your comment made me test the 3D since i haven’t seen it in so long. For reference I used the Amazing Spider-stallion demo. With 3D turned on i didn’t like the feeling that my HUD was floating and looked blurry since it was in the corner of my eye. I also noticed that while you were right and it doesn’t effect the resolution, the frame rate does drop by a very small (almost insignificant) amount. This is an unavoidable fact because of how the 3D effect is produced. What i thought was lower resolution was actually the aliasing being more obvious, which some ponies (including myself) find incredibly annoying. Also, for tapping the screen i would often end up tilting the entire system very slightly, but enough to throw off the 3D effect making it a nuisance to have to reposition my view. My final point is that i realized where the eye-hurt comes from, and that is the need to actually focus my eyes on artificial depths, which my brain finds contrary to the fact that i know the screen is flat.
        So from my findings: the game is easier to look at and appreciate with the 3D turned off.
        And i ask of you, name one already implemented application of 3D technology in video games, that cannot be done on a regular 2D display

  • AdvancePlays

    I would agree, however, just because it’s something you don’t use doesn’t mean others don’t. I never play without the 3D because the game loses the depth it needs. I was playing OoT3D yesterday and I switched the 3D off for some archery using the gyro (3D sucks for that, though) and I didn’t turn it on after.
    The game just looked dull and fake, and when I switched 3D back on it looked so much better. I could tell exactly where Link was in comparison to the wall and that just feels right. I get so much more involved in 3D gaming to 2D.
    Seriously, you forget all other graphical imperfections with 3D. Resolution looks fine, frame rate looks fine and everything else looks fine. The 3D looks much better than fine.

    Basically, while I agree that 3D is a ‘Gimmick’ (In today’s terms anyway) it’s the best God-damn gimmick I’ve experienced, because it isn’t truly a gimmick. Confusing, I know, but It’s not there for the sake of it being there, it’s there to enhance gaming, and that’s why it isn’t a gimmick.

  • Regent909

    I disagree. I always, always play every game with full 3D on. It’s what makes the console so special. It turned ‘Ocarina of Time’ from a video game into magic.
    It is the major selling point for a reason. Every stupid phones can play stupid games, but ONLY Nintendo let’s you play in 3D! That is an extremely large advantage and Nintendo would be stupid not to make use of this.
    How many items could would NIntendo have sold if they had released another DS with slightly better graphics? Not very much.
    How many people buy the 3DS because it’s the ONLY CONSOLE that can play 3D? Many.
    Which is why the 3DS keeps outselling all other consoles every week of the year.

    • Regent909

      Which is *why* the 3DS….

    • Churze

      People are NOT buying 3ds for 3d. They are buying it for games. If people were buying it for 3d, it would have already had all it’s lifetime sales.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100000581953673 Jesse Gallegos

    I love the 3D effect and rarely ever play without it cranked all the way up. I think that it does a lot for gameplay when it comes to depth perception. Hey, “to each his own”, but I’ll tell you one thing, KI: Uprising and RE: Revelations look phenomenal in 3D, and they hardly took any hit in graphical appeal!

  • zdog

    You write a good article Alex Plant. I think it is too bad that the 3D didn’t take off like it was supposed to because it leads me to wonder what Nintendo could have done otherwise. Something like a very powerful portable with dedicated processing. We’ll never know, but it just totally reminds me of how the press reacted to the PSP when it was announced, and we all know how that went…

    • Black

      Alex Plant never writes good articles.

  • Dr0sik

    I do not own a 3DS yet. The only reason I plan on buying one is Generation 6 of Pokemon (And that won’t be out for a few years.) All though, if Nintendo does make a Majora’s Mask remake, I might just have to buy it early. :)
    ANYWAY, the point I’m trying to make is that it’s the GAMES that make me want to buy a console or handeld. And it’s not just the graphics of the games either. It’s the CONTENT. The last thing I care about is graphics. I still play NES and Game Boy games.
    It’s certainly not the 3D that has my attention. Infact, the 3D hurts my eyes.

    • Scondeez

      You’ll get used to it. It hurts everyone’s eyes at first…

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100001078623145 Ethan Letourneau

    I find it an interesting representation of the readers who bother to comment that the comments that respectfully disagree are up voted and the comments that agree with the article are down voted

    • Black

      If you’re not down-voting everything Alex Plant says, you’re doing something wrong.

  • Black

    You do realize that the 3D effect doesn’t affect processing power at all, right?
    It doesn’t “allocate power differently based on the 3D settings”- that’s not a valid argument.

    Seriously, learn how technology works before you blast something just to be an edgy rebel.